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Truth Behind The News: Harvesting Technique, Dry Creek General Store, An Amazing New Beer

By Charles Olken

Like you, I read the wine news almost every day. A lot of it is nonsense and much of it is no more than public relations, but occasionally some of it catches my attention. That is not to say that what catches my attention is more important than what does not—as you will see from the news and analysis that had me sitting up and thinking over the weekend.

Mechanical Harvesting Versus Hand Harvesting

Mark me down as one of those luddites who cannot stand the notion of metal closures and mechanical harvesting. “Old-fashioned” is a term made for folks like me. It’s not that I cannot learn new tricks—after all I learned how to program my VCR (yes, I was a lot younger then)—but given my druthers, I prefer corks and hand-picked grapes.

A recent, very long and fairly thoughtful article in the Wine Enthusiast examined the issue of man versus machine and decided that it was all in the eye of the beholder. If want to behold wine quality, then by all means insist on hand-harvested grapes. But, if bang for your buck was top of your priority list, then don’t sweat the small stuff because chances are that much of your priceworthy tipple is already entirely or at least partially machine harvested.

Because the article was short on anecdotes and even shorter on statistics, it was not a “learned” assessment of the differences so much as a recounting of the manner in which our biases work. I have already stated mine, and I am sticking to them.

Still, reality bites, even in wine country, and no more so than when it comes to questions about how to get the grapes off the vine and into the winery. And it is clear that my bias against mechanical harvesting has good basis in fact. It is just that some of those facts are decades old.

Here is what I mean. In the early days of the California wine revolution, when grapes were being planted by the tens of thousands of acres from year to year and in new places for wine like Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, those vines were very often spaced and trellised for mechanical picking machines. In those early days, however, the first metal gatherers also damaged the vines and picked too many leaves and everything else in their ways. So, even though machine could beat man for picking speed, it was clear to many wineries that quality and vineyard health was suffering. And, with a more than adequate supply of vineyard labor, it was back to the human pickers.

Two changes have happened since that time. The first is that the machines have become considerable more gentle in their handling of grapes and vines, thus making machines a reasonable choice when image and biases like mine were not in play. And the second is more insidious. It is the “wall” and the related enforcement actions that now keep a steady supply of seasonable labor out of the country. Whether you favor that result or not is not at issue here. What is, however, a concern for folks like me is comments like those I heard in the Napa Valley that there may be grapes this year that could go unharvested because the available labor force is smaller now than it has been.

Wineries, for better or worse, are now being forced to keep their workers on staff all year long and to provide for better conditions in terms of housing, health care and the necessities of life lest they lose the workers they already have. But, that is a small and wholly appropriate price to pay for the ability to have a work force that can be counted on.

Yet, here are the words of one of Napa’s most forceful advocates for worker care. “It matters not much anymore what we do for our workers, because we are not going to get a seasonal flow from south of the border. Some of it may be improved economic conditions at home but most of the reason is based on the fear of being arrested. And if this country does not create a guest worker program, we are going to need to bring in mechanical harvesters to pick the fruit”. He went on to say that grapes are not the only produce that will be facing a worker shortage, but that is topic for peach farmers in Georgia and their brethren around the country. For yours truly, the worry is about the quality of wine grapes.


The Dry Creek General Store Stops Selling Beer and Wine

The Dry Creek Valley, west of Healdsburg, is home to dozens of wineries and thousands of acres of grape vines. It is a lovely place, a couple of hours north of San Francisco, and a great day trip when thoughts of avoiding hordes of tour busses and overpriced tasting rooms drives you out of the Napa Valley. But unlike Napa, the Dry Creek Valley does not boast a long list of eateries.

It does, however, have the Dry Creek General Store, in existence for almost a century and a half to supply the eating and thirst-quenching needs of the masses. It is a place that we all love despite how crowded it has become—and it is now been put out of the wine and beer business for small violations and petty bureaucratic actions.

Its current owner, one Gina Gallo and family, is now working to restore its ability to provide those lighter alcoholic tipples like beer and wine. And as for me, there is nothing better than a cold beer and a well-stuffed sandwich as the antidote to hours of wine tasting.

So, add the Dry Creek General Store to the list of old-fashioned ideas that I adore.

A New Thirst Quenching Beer

Dogfish Head is one of that new group of artisanal brewers (think Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, et al) who have upped the ante in the brewing world. If there is one area of new that is better than old in this country, aside from television sets and recording media, it is beer. I will admit it. I am a beer drinker—second, of course—but a beer drinker nonetheless.

But when I read that Dogfish Head had come up with a beer that it says will actually quench thirst, I was all ears. And I have no doubt that the brewery has science on its side. Beer, like all alcohol, does have tendency to dry one out a bit.

But, beer is mostly water anyhow and that fact is not lost on me or the legions of folks who have always used beer as a thirst quencher and palate reviver. That is why I am not waiting for Dogfish Head to get its new brew out to the West Coast to enjoy a cold one after hours of wine tasting or a day at the ball park—or up in the Dry Creek Valley when the General Store gets its beer and wine license renewed.


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Meet the New CGCW

For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


by TomHill
Posted on:7/11/2017 10:36:00 AM

Totally agree on the DryCreekGeneralStore, Charlie. One of my favorite places and I love the funky atmosphere inside. But dropping in for a samwich at lunch these days, at least during the Summer, is pretty tough because of the crowds. Have to go early or go late.

The beer&wine issue there does seem so petty. Friggin' bureaucracy.



Mechanical harvesting
by Bob Henry
Posted on:7/15/2017 4:20:35 AM

I am reminded of curmudgeon Joe Heitz’s indifference to mechanical harvesting as expressed in his interview in Robert Benson’s 1977 published book titled "Great Winemakers of California."

Robotic mechanical harvesting
by Bob Henry
Posted on:7/15/2017 4:30:37 AM

Excerpt from Newswire

(Jul 13, 2017):

"Vineyard Robot Prototype to Debut at FutureFarm Expo in Oregon"


"Seeking to solve the chronic labor shortage problem facing the US premium wine industry, the project 'ROVR' (Remote Operated Vineyard Robot) team has developed a fully mobile concept demonstrator at their Pendleton, Oregon R&D lab. The first public demonstration of the virtual reality operated robot will take place at the 2017 FutureFarm Expo on August 15-17.

"The one-of-a-kind technology was developed over the last eighteen months by Digital Harvest, a Virginia-based agricultural solutions company who recently established a research outpost at the Pendleton UAS Test Range.

"To date, the promise of industrial robots taking over "dumb, dirty or dangerous" tasks for workers has yet to be realized outside of the factory floor. Despite tens of thousands of man hours and huge sums invested, robotics researchers and innovators (with few exceptions) have yet to realize the goal of developing cost-effective robots capable of replicating the productivity of skilled farm workers."

There's A Difference
by Adam Lee
Posted on:7/22/2017 10:33:12 AM


Old-fashioned is fine.  But, in my opinion, there's a difference between hanging onto something because it is traditional and superior and hanging onto something because it is traditional and inferior.  Hand harvesting (and in my opinion hand-leafing) is superior to what can currently be accomplished by machine.  Thus it makes sense to hold onto it.  Bottling under cork, which traditional, is inferior to bottling under twist-offs.  Older and better - yes.  Older and worse -- not for me.

Adam Lee

Necessity Is The Mother of Invention
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/22/2017 12:22:31 PM

Hi Adam--

I don't know for sure, but from my vantage point, you are the most prominent proponent of bottling under screwcap. That's a fair and reasonable choice, but I am not yet convinced. Still, it is not like there is an absolute right and wrong here even though some proponents of twist-offs would disagree with me.

As for mechanical harvesting, I do prefer hand harvesting, but I worry that all of agriculture in this country is going to be forced out of hand labor because the government will not allow enough seasonal workers to come in, and no matter what they do, wineries cannot keep a full work force employed year round. 

I was recently in New Zealand where they combine mechanical harvesting for some wines with hand labor that comes in seasonally and then goes home to their South Sea Island homes.

We may be forced out of the choioce in this country, and that is the worry.

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